At 2:44 am my five year old knocks on my bedroom door. He had a dream that a robber got in our house. “And we couldn’t get it out.” Oh sweetie, it’s okay. Hugs. Kisses. Mommy’s here. Don’t you worry. He crawls in bed with me and I draw on every shred of yoga instruction I have ever had, every Celestial Seasonings tea bag. Inhale. Exhale. Because there is one secret problem: Mommy has the same nightmare.
Four nights a week, due to my husband’s work, my kids and I sleep alone, something I hesitate (more than hesitate) to commit to the written word as if I’m tacking up a neon sign saying somewhere on some street in this city there is a house guarded by a 131 pound female. Criminals, I’m sure, read a lot of mom blogs and through some miracle of techno-satellite-reverse-programming, use them to pinpoint their next targets.
I forget the difference between robbers and burglars. When I’m home alone, they’re both hiding out in the laurel hedge, chewing gum and reading magazines, waiting for me to go upstairs to bed, while the people addicted to meth straggle down the sidewalk, like the man who one afternoon as I unlocked my front door shouted at me in a jagged, fiery voice: “Don’t go in there!”
On the nights we sleep alone, I am a fortress of calm. I check the doors and windows, programming the alarm system, switching up the pattern of the lamps I leave on, closing drapes so no one will spy our shiny objects. I check the doors to the backyard and the basement. Then I go to the office and check the back window. The side one doesn’t open. At night I give thanks for windows that don’t open. Then I check the bathroom window. I once read about a man in North Portland who woke one Sunday morning to the sound of a guy squeezing himself through his bathroom window. This has made me especially vigilant of bathroom windows, and of Sundays.
Then the fortress starts to creak. Dry rot sets in. Because once I’ve finished the last window, I should ascend the stairs, say a prayer for protection, and slumber. Except, welcome to the cuckoo clock, this is when I start all. over. again. By the time I complete the routine, enough time has gone by that I begin to doubt what I did at the beginning. Did I check that kitchen window tonight or was it last night? Did I skip a door? Our front door locks when the knobby thing is horizontal, but maybe tonight, one night only, it locks on the vertical. It doesn’t help that a handful of times, maybe four times in five years, I’ve missed one. This is fuel to my madness. There is a psychological term, I think, for the thing that encourages you to keep doing the silly thing you’re doing. Is it Pavlov and the drooling dog? I forget.
When my husband is home, he checks the doors and windows. Then he goes up to bed while I lock the ones he missed–one in eight. Seven. Recently the back door to the basement was in fact locked, but his keys were in the door. On the outside. And he’d gone to bed. I could hear the snoring. Girls, do you hear what I’m saying? A friend told me her husband once checked the doors before bed. When she double-checked she found the sliding door wide open, wind blowing the curtains.
I try to think, why do women seem to worry more about personal safety? Could it be because in the eighth grade they divided the girls and the boys. A female police officer talked to the girls about how to get away if someone tries to kidnap and rape you. I remember she told the story of a teenage girl who, being driven away by her kidnapper, started pooping all over the back seat. The kidnapper was so grossed out he threw her out on the side of the road. “Whatever works,” said the officer.
The boys were outside playing football. It was sunny.
When I was ten or eleven, my mom parked our car in the Washington Square parking lot. An older lady in a wool coat rushed over and warned us that we were parked alongside a van with no windows. Be careful when you come back, she said in hushed tones, so the kids wouldn’t hear. We heard. Loud and clear. Don’t get yourself raped. No one knows how to stop men from raping, no one has found out how to stop men from hurting women. I think we’ve given up. Women, you’ll just have to do your best not to get raped, attacked, kidnapped, burglarized or robbed. The ultimate DIY project.
Is it any wonder, then, that given what could happen if someone sneaks in the back door, spending seven more obsessive minutes re-checking the doors and windows seems like a bargain. Even if it weren’t, when I go upstairs and check on my sleeping children, snug in their jammies, what can I do? They are counting on me. I know all the dangers in the world, new ones being invented daily. There is one thing, tonight, between those dangers and my loves. Two things. That the random winds of evil are blowing the other direction. And me, the parent. I turn off my lamp and put my head on the pillow knowing that I alone am in charge of keeping them safe through the night. I pray over them, mostly to help myself sleep, to cover all my bases. My faith is no more inspiring than that.
Cozy under the quilts, I stroke my son’s worried head. I don’t tell him about the weapons stashed in my bedroom. The pepper spray, the Maglite, the knife–“You sleep with a knife?” said the marriage counselor–the landline within arm’s reach, and the cell phone in my slipper in case someone cuts the landline like I saw on 20/20. If I could say one thing to the solo women of the world, do not watch network TV after 10pm unless you want to see ten different crimes against women. You might as well snuggle up with a hot chocolate and watch The Accused.
I wrote off the marriage counselor’s surprise. He was male. And I did not mention that it was my husband who gave me the knife. Also the pepper spray, the home alarm system, and the tip about punching in the throat.
My son cuddles next to me and whispers, tell me more about robbers. Tell me things I don’t know about robbers. Oh my darling. Why so eager? Don’t you know how hard Mommy has worked to create your bubble world? In preschool everyone is safe and valued, conflicts resolved peacefully. But already you are learning that kids can be mean. A safe valued buddy can make you feel unsafe. Maybe you figure there must be more mean in the world than we’re letting on.
Maybe you want to know just how big this problem is.
My darling, one day you will find out that just when you think you know what bad is, along comes something even more unimaginable. Airplanes and crumbling towers. Pools of blood where galoshes should be. In this world that I want you and your sister to love and believe in and rejoice in, there will be evil. There are human beings, people in our zip code, so diminished by their own lives that they would thrill to watch us quake with fear. To feel power over a mom in sweatpants and zit cream and her babies. I would try everything in my human and nonhuman power and I, the mom you think can fix anything, would not be able to stop them from hurting you. Could not stop you from witnessing something that could destroy your possibility for a happy life. Never in a million years do I want you to know what the brothers and sisters of this earth do to each other.
I consider my options. Is 3 am the time to bring up that there are no bad people only bad choices? My faith upbringing says forgive those who hurt you. We are all children of God. If someone takes your iPhone, give them also your iPad. Radical love. Radical forgiveness. As a mother, I cannot sustain this. Take my daughter’s favorite stuffy and, at best, I would snatch it back and say excuse me in my snottiest, haughtiest voice.
But don’t we always want more for our children?
I tell my son that robbers take things that don’t belong to them. That there are good people who make bad decisions. It’s a surprise to me, at 3 am, that when I say it, it feels true, like this is what I believe.
My son wants to know if robbers can get in our house. Of course they can sweetheart, our front door is made of glass! So is our back door! One punch! In!
I say no, honey, they can’t get in. I pray that I sound convincing. Another sign of my weak faith, I’m praying now not that God will keep us safe, only for the theatrical ability to make it sound like we are one hundred percent safe. Because darling, your world, the world mommy brought you into, is not safe. Mommy went to some marches and things, but she didn’t try hard enough to fix the world before she brought you into it. She child-proofed the living room but not the Western United States. She plugged the outlets, but not the holes in the justice system.
I tell him that no one can get in, the doors are locked. He says what about the backyard, someone could take toys from the backyard. I say we have lights in the back and robbers don’t like lights. He likes this. I say the police are close, and they would come so fast and help us. I say the police are driving around right this minute, looking for robbers. I feel his relief. His body lightens. He exhales like he’s been holding his breath all this time. “I feel much better,” he says. Oh honey I am so glad to hear you say that. You don’t know. He nestles next to me and within minutes I hear the deep breathing of sleep. I listen for and hear my daughter’s sweet sleep sighs, and all is well. It’s how it’s supposed to be for them.
I know, and accept, that I will sleep no more tonight. Three-thirty. Four. Five-fifteen. How could I sleep? I promised everything would be okay. I’m on duty. I will lie here and wait for trouble. It’s okay. I’m ready. (I don’t really know why I think it is okay to sleep in the first place. I mean, I’m supposed to be keeping these kids safe and I’m not even conscious?)
At six o’clock my alarm starts chirping. It’s set to crickets. I think of falling asleep, as a child, to the sound of crickets outside my open window, the sweet-syrup smell of honeysuckle, the summer breeze warm and gentle, like a mother’s promise. For the splittest of seconds, I think we’re there.
I wake up and creep out of the bedroom, leaving my son asleep. My daughter too, still sleeps, her dollies tucked in the crook of her arm. I stumble downstairs and make coffee. It’s still dark, but the sun will be up soon. So lucky to be awake to see this moment, the change from dark to light. It happens every day. The thought of it, amazing.